Secrets of Collaborative Leadership

The explosion of the blogosphere is a sign of how grassroots movements have empowered millions. But while “collaborative facilitation” has taken over from the traditional top-down approach, we must not think it can take the place of responsible leadership.

By Andy Mannle

We live in a world of increasing complexity, constant change, and unprecedented problems. It is clear that the old ways of doing virtually everything must be radically re-examined. And while the crises we face are many – economic, environmental, and social – they are all exacerbated by a deeper crisis. A crisis in leadership itself.

I recently attended a forum led by expert facilitator Jahn Ballard who says “Collaborative facilitation is the newest profession on earth.”

And yet, it is also as old as Democracy itself.

“The United States,” says Ballard, “is the most powerful collective being on the planet. We generate wealth far beyond any other society.” Our money, he says, is merely a symptom of that wealth. Our real wealth is based on our ability to tap the creative talents, scientific curiosity, and practical know-how of our people.

The Roots of Participation

Town Hall meetings are how the United States started, and individual civic participation has always been a cherished component of our democracy. At the Constitutional Convention the only thing the signers could agree on was that, “vigorous authority [should] come from the legitimate source of all authority - the people. The government ought to possess not only the force, but the mind or sense of the people at large."

As a Tory observer of pre-Revolutionary town hall meetings in Philadelphia observed, “At these meetings, even the lowest mechanics discuss upon the most important points of government, with the utmost freedom.” Needless to say, this was unheard of in aristocratic societies.

Thomas Jefferson could never have imagined online social networks, email petitions, or YouTube campaigns, but he did believe that people should take an active role in their government. In 1821 he wrote:

"Among other improvements, I hope they adopt the subdivision of our counties into wards. Each ward would thus be a small republic within itself and every man (and woman) in the state would thus become an active member of the common government."

And while our technology has certainly taken popular participation a long way, the art of facilitating effective citizen-to-citizen communication has never been a more critical skill. Simply listening to everybody is not enough to produce meaningful results. Facilitators must find a way to tap the wisdom of the group for a collective goal.

An old Japanese saying says, “None of us is as smart as all of us.” Good facilitation, says Ballard, is based on “the trust that emerges from the discovery and profound respect for the wisdom of each person.”

Maximizing a group’s available wisdom to strengthen their collective sovereignty – in other words, achieving real results that everybody owns - is the real power of collaboration.

“In small pockets across this nation and the planet, people are proving that they are capable of creating their own destiny as a community and a nation. The question is how and what do we do to make this a systematic option for us all?”

Building a Collaborative Operating System

The old sixties axiom “If the people lead, the leaders will follow,” has never been more true than today. The success of progressive political groups like MoveOn, TrueMajority, and the We campaign is evident in how they shaped the Obama team’s winning election strategy. Likewise, the increasing influence the Blogosphere is having on mainstream media is another example of bottom-up changes being led by small groups and individuals.

Yet people do need leaders. And lack of responsible leadership at the top - in say, the automotive and financial industries – is creating a vacuum that others are necessarily rushing to fill.

But the old forms of hierarchical based decision-making are simply not up to the times we live in. The “DAD” model – Decide, Announce, Defend; or what planners call “Predict and Provide,” is being replaced with “Debate and Decide” models which favor participatory consensus-building over information-based decision-making.

All of which is changing what it means to be a leader from a strong decision maker to a collaborative facilitator.

Doug Engelbart is the Silicon Valley pioneer credited with inventing the mouse. But the reason his Augmentation Research Group at Stanford was intent on developing human/computer interfaces was to enhance our ability to solve complex problems. Engelbart was an electrical engineer working on radar technology, and he realized that as humanities' problems grow increasingly complex, we would need to develop more complex methods for dealing with them.

But while the computing tools he developed have spread all over the world - Logitech just sold the 1 billionth mouse - the "people" side of his work was something he considered even more important. Namely, how do you engage a group of people in a sustained process of collaborative problem-solving in such a way that both the process and the tools self-improve over time? Engelbart called this "bootstrapping."

In the 1860's, Robert's Rules of Order distilled the parliamentary procedure used by the British House of Commons into a simple, accessible way for any group of people to have a policy discussion. This proved so useful that it spread organically, and is now the way that virtually every civil society and every board of business function today.

What Ballard and others are suggesting is that the system needs an upgrade: "We need to\ collaboratively create a Collaborative Operating System that applies Engelbart's principle of bootstrapping to common culture."

The principles behind the Collaborative Operating System have been applied over the years through hundreds of thousands of meetings since the 1950's in every time zone on earth, and refined into a technique called "The Technology of Participation."

The Technology of Participation

Building on the "Focused Conversation Method" developed by the Institute of Cultural Affairs - a non-profit which has used a group facilitation method called the Technology of Participation (ToP®) to help dozens of government departments, universities, non-profits and major companies for years - Ballard and others have developed a simple, open-source methodology for facilitating effective collaboration.

1. Agree on Intent and Outcomes Beforehand

We have all been to meetings that were chaotic and unorganized, or boring and ineffective. The secret to overcoming that is to craft together clear agreement beforehand on why you're having the meeting, and what you expect to accomplish. First, draft a sentence that captures the Intent of the meeting, as well as a list of Outcomes. It is crucial to get input and buy-in from your key players on the Intent and Outcomes, prior to getting everybody in a room together, stresses Ballard.

Intent: Draft a single sentence that clearly captures the overall purpose of the meeting: "Develop a strategy to create a million Green-Collar jobs in the next two years."

Outcomes: It is important to develop outcomes that are both Rational and Experiential.

Rational outcomes are actionable, measurable, concrete results or goals: "Document our top five job creation strategies. Identify primary obstacles to job creation, and key partners to help us overcome those obstacles."

Experiential outcomes describe the way you want to feel, both during and at the end of your goal. In other words, you may not know what success looks like exactly, but you should be able to describe how it makes you feel. "Be inspired by each other, and informed about each other's areas of expertise."

2. Use the Focused Conversation Method during the Meeting

Once the meeting is assembled, get everybody’s input using focused conversation. By allowing everybody to be heard and become a part of the decision-making process you greatly increase their buy-in. Using open-ended rather than yes/no questions will help draw out the group's wisdom on a specific topic. Ballard recommends the F.E.E.D. method:

– allow everybody to state their personal background or relevant information.

Emotion – allow everybody to express their feelings and associations about the topic at hand.

Evaluations – Allow people to offer interpretations, experience and insight without judgement.

Decisions – Finally, allow people to offer choices for action, possible responses to the situation, or resolutions.

People using this method over the last 50 years have found that the key is to hold off on the decisional questions as long as possible to allow the group's understanding to emerge organically. Ideally, both the personal and collective actions required will become obvious to all. This is what Ballard calls breaking the "Synergy Barrier."

Breaking the Synergy Barrier

Imagine ending your next meeting with each person in whole-hearted agreement about the next steps, and fired up to get going. Have you ever been to a meeting where that happened?

"That experience of whole-hearted unanimity is what you're going for," says Ballard. "Most people have never experienced that. Most people don't even imagine it as a possibility. That's why the Technology of Participation is so profound, because it delivers that experience pretty consistently."

"When you create an environment where people have a visceral experience of being a part of a larger whole, and experience their natural genius in relation to that, life is completely transformed," says Ballard. "That's why we love to watch competitive sports - there's a level of flow, synergy, and cooperation between people operating at a very high level that most people never experience in their whole lives for any sustained period of time."

As millions of people crowded the Washington Mall for Obama's inauguration, I know hundreds of millions more around the globe felt that visceral experience of being part of a larger whole. And as Obama begins his presidency calling for a new era of transparency and responsibility, he continues to demonstrate that true leadership draws its strength from the understanding and cooperation of the people involved.

But the question is, can we sustain that energy? And can we apply it to our global challenges?

Historic barriers were certainly broken on Inauguration Day, and the whole world felt it. Our challenge now is to break the synergy barrier in our daily lives. To do so, we will need to learn the art of collaborative leadership.

For more information on the art of Collaborative Facilitation:

The Commons: An Institute of the Whole

Community at Work: Putting Participatory

Technology of Participation

Interaction Associates: Return on Involvement

Transcendent Solutions


Andy Mannle is senior editor of, a site dedicated to sustainable policy, innovations, and solutions. This article has been reprinted courtesy of that publication.

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